Fifty-three years ago this week, the United States Army Nike Hercules air defense missile system was first deployed in the continental United States. The second-generation surface-to-air missile was designed to intercept and destroy hostile ballistic missiles.
The Nike Program was a United States Army project to develop a missile capable of defending high priority military assets and population centers from attack by Soviet strategic bombers. Named for the Greek goddess of victory, the Nike Program began in 1945. The industrial consortium of Bell Laboratories, Western Electric, Hercules and Douglas Aircraft developed, tested and fielded Nike for the Army.
Nike Ajax (MIM-3) was the first defensive missile system to attain operational status under the Nike Program. The two-stage, surface-launched interceptor initially entered service at Fort Meade, Maryland in December of 1953. A total of 240 Nike Ajax launch sites were eventually established throughout CONUS. The primary assets protected were metropolitan areas, long-range bomber bases, nuclear plants and ICBM sites.
Nike Ajax consisted of a solid-fueled first stage (59,000 lbs thrust) and a liquid-fueled second stage (2,600 lbs thrust). The launch vehicle measured nearly 34 feet in length and had a ignition weight of 2,460 lbs. The second stage was 21 feet long, had a maximum diameter of 12 inches and weighed 1,150 lbs fully loaded. The type’s maximum speed, altitude and range were 1,679 mph, 70,000 feet and 21.6 nautical miles, respectively.
The Nike Hercules (MIM-14) was the successor to the Nike Ajax. It featured all-solid propulsion and much higher thrust levels. The first stage was rated at 220,000 lbs of thrust while that of the second stage was 10,000 lbs. The Nike Hercules airframe was significantly larger than its predecessor. The launch vehicle measured 41 feet in length and weighed 10,700 lbs at ignition. Second stage length and ignition weight were 26.8 feet and 5,520 lbs, respectively.
Nike Hercules kinematic performance was quite impressive. The respective top speed, altitude and range were 3,000 mph, 150,000 feet and 76 nautical miles. This level of performance allowed the vehicle to be used for the ballistic missile intercept mission. Most Nike Hercules missiles carried a nuclear warhead with a yield of 20 kilotons.
The first operational Nike Hercules systems were deployed to the Chicago, Philadelphia and New York localities on Monday, 30 June 1958. By 1963, fully 134 Nike Hercules batteries were deployed throughout CONUS. These systems remained in the United States missile arsenal until 1974. The exceptions were batteries located in Alaska and Florida which remained in active service until the 1978-79 time period.
Like Nike Ajax before it, Nike Hercules had a successor. It was originally known as Nike Zeus and then Nike-X. This Nike variant was designed for intercepting enemy ICBM’s that were targeted for American soil. The vehicle went through a number of iterations before a final solution was achieved. Known as Spartan, this missile was what we would refer to today as a mid-course interceptor.
In companionship with a SPRINT terminal phase interceptor, Spartan formed the Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile System. The American missile defense system was impressive enough to the Soviet Union that the communist country signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty 3 years before Safeguard’s deployment. Though operational for a mere 3 months, Safeguard was depostured in 1975. This action brought to a close a 30-year period in which the Nike Program was a major player in American missile defense.
Ten years ago this month, the first NASA X-43A airframe-integrated scramjet flight research vehicle was launched from a B-52 carrier aircraft high over the Pacific Ocean. The inaugural mission of the HYPER-X Flight Project came to an abrupt end when the launch vehicle departed controlled flight while passing through Mach 1.
In 1996, NASA initiated a technology demonstration program known as HYPER-X (HX). The central goal of the HYPER-X Program was to successfully demonstrate sustained supersonic combustion and thrust production of a flight-scale scramjet propulsion system at speeds up to Mach 10.
Also known as the HYPER-X Research Vehicle (HXRV), the X-43A aircraft was a scramjet test bed. The aircraft measured 12 feet in length, 5 feet in width, and weighed close to 3,000 pounds. The X-43A was boosted to scramjet take-over speeds with a modified Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket booster.
The combined HXRV-Pegasus stack was referred to as the HYPER-X Launch Vehicle (HXLV). Measuring approximately 50 feet in length, the HXLV weighed slightly more than 41,000 pounds. The HXLV was air-launched from a B-52 mothership. Together, the entire assemblage constituted a 3-stage vehicle.
The first flight of the HYPER-X program took place on Saturday, 02 June 2001. The flight originated from Edwards Air Force Base, California. Using Runway 04, NASA’s venerable B-52B (S/N 52-0008) started its take-off roll at approximately 19:28 UTC. The aircraft then headed for the Pacific Ocean launch point located just west of San Nicholas Island.
At 20:43 UTC, the HXLV fell away from the B-52B mothership at 24,000 feet. Following a 5.2 second free fall, the rocket motor lit and the HXLV started to head upstairs. Disaster struck just as the vehicle accelerated through Mach 1. That’s when the rudder locked-up. The launch vehicle then pitched, yawed and rolled wildly as it departed controlled flight. Control surfaces were shed and the wing was ripped away. The HXRV was torn from the booster and tumbled away in a lifeless state. All airframe debris fell into the cold Pacific Ocean far below.
The mishap investigation board concluded that no single factor caused the loss of HX Flight No. 1. Failure occurred because the vehicle’s flight control system design was deficient in a number of simulation modeling areas. The result was that system operating margins were overestimated. Modeling inaccuracies were identified primarily in the areas of fin system actuation, vehicle aerodynamics, mass properties and parameter uncertainties. The flight mishap could only be reproduced when all of the modeling inaccuracies with uncertainty variations were incorporated in the analysis.
The X-43A Return-to-Flight effort took almost 3 years. Happily, the HYPER-X Program hit paydirt twice in 2004. On Saturday, 27 March 2004, HX Flight No. 2 achieved scramjet operation at Mach 6.83 (almost 5,000 mph). This historic accomplishment was eclipsed by even greater success on Tuesday, 16 November 2004. Indeed, HX Flight No. 3 achieved sustained scramjet operation at Mach 9.68 (nearly 7,000 mph).
The historic achievements of the HYPER-X Program went largely unnoticed by the aerospace industry and the general public. For its part, NASA did not do a very good job of helping people understand the immensity of what was accomplished. Even the NASA Administrator appeared different to the scramjet program. While he attended an X-Prize flight by Scaled-Composites’ SpaceShipOne right up the street at the Mojave Spaceport, he did not see fit to attend either of that year’s historic scramjet flights that originated right down the street at Edwards Air Force base.
However, it was the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-107 in February of 2003 that doomed HX even before the program’s first successful flight. Everything changed for NASA when Columbia and its crew was lost. The agency’s overriding focus and meager financial resources went into the Shuttle Return-to-Flight effort. NASA’s aeronautical and access-to-space arms were especially hard hit.
If timing is everything as some insist, then the HYPER-X Program was really the victim of bad timing. It is both intriguing and distressing to ponder what would have been the case if HX Flight No. 1 had been successful. The likely answer is that at least one of the anticipated follow-on scramjet flight research programs (i.e., X-43B, X-43C, and X-43D) would have been developed and flown. Thanks to Murphy’s ubiquitous influence, we’ll never know.
Sixty-three years ago this month, the USAF/Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing came apart during a test flight that originated at Muroc Air Force Base. Among the five crew members who perished in the aviation mishap was famed test pilot USAF Captain Glen W. Edwards.
The USAF/Northrop YB-49 heavy bomber prototype first flew in October of 1947. The aircraft was a jet-powered derivative of the propeller-driven XB-35. Both of these legendary aircraft were flying wing designs pioneered by visionary aircraft designer Jack Northrop.
Traditionally, interest in a flying wing aircraft stems from its inherently-high lift, low drag and hence high lift-to-drag ratio characteristics. These attributes make a flying wing ideal for the strategic bombing mission where large payloads must be carried long distances to the target. In addition, the type’s low profile and swept wings contributed to its low radar cross-section.
The same configurational features that give flying wing aircraft favorable performance also present stability and control issues and adverse handling qualities. The lack of a traditional empenage requires that all flight controls be placed on the wing itself. This leads to significant aerodynamic coupling that affects aircraft pitch, yaw and roll motion.
The YB-49 had a wing span of 172 feet, a length of 53 feet and a height of 15 feet. Gross take-off weight was approximately 194,000 lbs. Fuel accounted for roughly 106,000 lbs of that total. Power was supplied by eight (8) Allison/General Electric J35-A-5 turbojets. Each of these early-generation powerplants was rated at a mere 4,000 lbs of sea level thrust.
The YB-49 design performance included a maximum speed of 495 mph, a service ceiling of 45,700 feet and a maximum range of 8,668 nautical miles. The aircraft was designed to carry a maximum bomb load of 32,000 lbs. The strategic bombing mission would be flown by a crew of seven (7) including pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and gunners.
A pair of XB-35 airframes were modified to the YB-49 configuration. Ship No. 1 (S/N 42-102367) first took to the air on Tuesday, 21 October 1947. The maiden flight of Ship No. 2 (S/N 42-102368) occurred on Tuesday, 13 January 1948. Both flights originated from Hawthorne Airport and recovered at Muroc Air Force Base.
Flight testing of the YB-49 quickly confirmed the type’s performance promise. Demonstrated performance included a top speed of 520 mph and a maximum altitude of 42,000 feet. On Monday, April 26, 1948. On that date, the aircraft remained aloft for 9.5 hours, of which 6.5 hours were flown at an altitude of 40,000 feet.
The low point in YB-49 flight testing came on Saturday, 05 June 1948. On that fateful day, YB-49 Ship No. 2 crashed to destruction in the Mojave Desert northwest of Muroc Air Force Base. The entire crew of five (5) perished in the mishap. These crew members included Major Daniel N. Forbes (pilot), Captain Glen W. Edwards (co-pilot), Lt. Edward L. Swindell (flight engineer), Clare E. Lesser (observer) and Charles H. LaFountain (observer).
The cause of the YB-49 mishap was never fully determined. In descending from 40,000 feet following a test mission, the aircraft somehow exceeded its structural limit. The outer wing panels failed and the rest of the aircraft tumbled out of control, struck the ground inverted and immediately fireballed. Whether the incident was related to wing stall, spin or some such other flight control issue will never be definitively known.
YB-49 Ship No. 1 continued to fly after the loss of its stable mate. However, it too met an unkind fate. On Wednesday, 15 March 1950, the aircraft was declared a total loss following a non-fatal high-speed taxiing mishap. Several months later, all of Northrop’s flying wing contracts with the government were unexpectedly cancelled. Incredibly, the Wizards of the Beltway ultimately ordered that all Northrop-produced flying wing variants be cut-up for scrap.
Despite its performance, the YB-49 was too far ahead of its time. The aircraft did not exhibit good handling qualities and thus was not a good bombing platform. It needed the type of computer-based, multiply-redundant autopilot that is standard equipment on today’s aircraft.
Happily, the performance merits of the flying wing concept would be fully exploited with the introduction of the USAF/Northrop B-2 Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB). This aircraft first flew on Monday, 17 July 1989. Its subsequent success is now history. A host of new technologies converged to finally made the flying wing concept viable. Not the least of which is the aircraft’s multiply-redundant flight control system.
Finally, we note that 30-year old Captain Glen W. Edwards was a rising star in military flight test circles at the time of his death. In tribute to his aviation skills and in memory of a life cut short, Muroc Air Force Base was officially renamed on Tuesday, 05 December 1950. Since that day, it has been known as Edwards Air Force Base.
On Friday 03 June, 2011 White Eagle Aerospace CEO J. Terry White delivered a special rendition of his Apollo Remembered presentation at Spacefest III in Tucson, AZ. Mr. White led the audience on a 90-minute journey through the hallowed passages of the Apollo era, reliving unforgettable moments in history – moments that marked some of mankind’s greatest achievements and served to unite our Nation.
Several legendary Apollo crew members were in attendance, in addition to many other former United States astronauts. This was an especially memorable gathering and possibly one of the last opportunities these great men will have to unite. Mr. White was fortunate enough to meet with several of these pioneering astronauts and express his gratitude for their enduring service to our country.
Pictured above, from top to bottom:
White Eagle Aerospace CEO J. Terry White with former United States
astronauts Jim Lovell, Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan and Charlie Duke.
Sixty-two years this week, the No. 2 USAF/Northrop X-4 experimental flight research aircraft took to the air for the first time. The flight of the second X-4 prototype originated from and recovered at Muroc Air Force Base, California.
The USAF/Northrop X-4 was an early X-plane designed to explore the flight characteristics of a swept-wing, tailless aircraft in transonic flight. It came into being as a result of recent Air Force studies which indicated that a tailless configuration might alleviate or eliminate instability issues associated with supersonic flight. The X-4’s external configuration was similar to that of the German Me163 Komet and the British De Havilland DH.108 Swallow.
The USAF contracted with the Northrop Aircraft Company in June of 1946 to construct and perform initial flight testing of two (2) X-4 aircraft. Northrop received the sole-source contract principally because of the company’s vast experience with flying-wing aircraft. Notable examples include the N-1M, XP-79B, XP-56 and the fabled B-35 heavy bomber.
The X-4 was a physically small airplane. As such, it received the nickname Bantam. It measured 23.25-feet in length and had a wing span of 26.75-feet. The wing leading edge sweep angle was 40.5-degrees. Gross take-off weight was 7,820 lbs. Power was provided by a pair of Westinghouse J30-WE-9 non-afterburning turbojets. Each powerplant had a sea level thrust rating of a paltry 1,600-lbs.
Due to the absence of a horizontal tail and an associated elevator, the X-4 was configured with wing-mounted elevons (combined elevator and aileron). These surfaces provided both pitch and roll control. The type’s split trailing edge flaps were used for low-speed lift enhancement as well as speed brake control. Aircraft directional control was provided via a standard vertical tail-mounted rudder.
The No. 1 X-4 aircraft (S/N 46-676) first flew on Wednesday, 15 December 1948 at Muroc Air Force Base, California. Northrop test pilot Charles Tucker was at the controls. The X-4’s first mission revealed that the aircraft was slightly unstable in pitch. Moving the center-of-gravity forward by 3-inches corrected this problem on subsequent X-4 flights.
The No. 2 X-4 aircraft (S/N 46-677) took to the skies over Muroc Air Force Base for the first time on Tuesday, 07 June 1949 with Northrop’s Charles Tucker once again doing the honors. The second X-4 prototype’s air worthiness characteristics and handling qualities were found to be entirely satisfactory.
This vehicle was in fact superior to the No. 1 aircraft in several respects. Not the least of which was a better flight instrumentation suite.
A total of 17 pilots flew the X-4. Northrop’s Charles Tucker piloted all 30 of the contractor flights including 10 in the No. 1 ship and 20 in the No. 2 X-4. The remaining 82 flights were all flown in the No. 2 ship by USAF and NACA pilots including such luminaries as Stanley Butchart (NACA), Scott Crossfield (NACA), Pete Everest (USAF), Jack McKay (NACA), Joe Walker (NACA) and Chuck Yeager (USAF).
The X-4 achieved a maximum altitude of 42,300 on Tuesday, 29 May 1951 and a maximum speed of Mach 0.94 on Monday, 22 September 1952. NACA pilot Scott Crossfield, who piloted the most X-4 flights (31), was at the controls in both instances.
The X-4 handled well below Mach 0.87. However, the aircraft exhibited an annoying porpoising in pitch at higher transonic speeds. Nose-down pitch changes also produced a Mach-tuck effect that worsened with increasing Mach number. The X-4 also had a nasty tendency to pitch-up as it approached sonic speed. These issues were all related in one way or another to the type’s unique tailless, swept wing configuration.
The X-4 flight test program officially ended in September of 1953. Of the 112 total flight tests conducted over the program’s 58-month duration, 102 were flown by the No. 2 ship. While the X-4 never flew supersonically, the type’s transonic flight research program revealed that the hoped-for advantages of a tailless aircraft in supersonic flight were specious.
Happily, both X-4 aircraft survived the flight test program intact. X-4 No. 1 (S/N 46-676) is currently on display at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. The No. 2 ship can be seen at the National Museum of the United States Air Force located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH.